“MERCY STREET” Season Two (2017) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season Two episodes of the PBS Civil War medical series called “MERCY STREET”. Created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, the series starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James and Josh Radnor:

“MERCY STREET” SEASON TWO (2017) EPISODE RANKING

1. (2.05) “Unknown Soldier” – French-born anatomical artist/war observer Lisette Beaufort uses her art skills to help the Mansion House Hospital staff identify a disfigured and amnesiac soldier. Nurse Anne Hastings joins Dr. Byron Hale’s efforts to undermine the authority of the new hospital chief, Major Clayton McBurney. And the Green family buckle under the emotional stress from Detective-turned-Secret Service Head Allan Pinkerton’s investigation into the disappearance of Union officer staying at their home and James Jr.’s gun smuggling operation for the Confederacy

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2. (2.06) “House of Bondage” – In this series finale, Dr. Jed Foster accompanies Samuel Diggs, who is going to a Philadelphia medical school. On the way, the pair pay a visit to the former’s family plantation in Maryland. Meanwhile, the Greens endure a political setback following the Union victory at Antietam and put an end to Pinkerton’s investigation of their missing military guest.

 

3. (2.02) “The House Guest” – A Union officer staying as a guest at the Greens’ home attracts the attention of Alice Green, now a Confederate spy and member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Mansion House’s head nurse, Mary McPhinney, succumbs to typhoid fever. And the no nonsense hospital chief, Major McBurney arrives.

 

4. (2.04) “Southern Mercy” – Following the Second Battle of Bull Run, Emma Green and Union Chaplain Hopkins set out to rescue a stranded group of wounded Union soldiers. Hospital observer Lisette discovers the truth about a young soldier, which shocks Dr. Foster. Hospital Matron Brennan’s son arrives at Mansion House, seeking a medical deferment from combat. And while hotel owner James Green proposes a “cotton diplomacy” plan to Confederate officials for European recognition, James Jr.’s gun smuggling operation is threatened when two of his free black employees stumble upon it.

 

5. (2.01) “Balm in Gilead” – In the season opener, the Mansion House staff unites to save one of their own. A former slave turned activist named Charlotte Jenkins arrives in Alexandria, Virginia to help stem a smallpox epidemic among the contraband population and causes a rift between Mary and the less racially tolerant Dr. Foster. And Samuel plans for a reunion up north with Aurelia, the former slave with whom he had fallen in love back in the first season.

 

6. (2.03) “One Equal Temper” – Due to James Jr.’s murder of the Union officer that Alice was spying on, Pinkerton becomes even more interested in the Green family. Also, Alice helps Emma’s beau, spy Frank Stringfellow escape and the pair encounters a Quaker farm couple while evading Union troops. Also, Major McBurney orders Dr. Foster and Miss Hastings to attend a high-ranking officer at a nearby Union Army camp in order to distance the doctor from an ailing Mary.

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“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

A few years ago, I had reviewed an old 1953 Tyrone Power movie called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. This 1953 movie proved to be a mixture of a costume melodrama and adventure that chronicled the adventures of a Northern-born gambler who moves to New Orleans to start his own casino. The following year saw the release of another movie with a similar theme called “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”

There are differences between “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. The latter film featured a top film star – Tyrone Power. And I can only assume that it was one of Universal Pictures’ “A” films for 1953. It was certainly a big hit. On the hand, one glance at “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and a person was bound to regard it as a “B” movie. The film’s lead, Dale Robertson, was never big as Power. He was mainly known as a television star during the 1950s and 1960s. And his Hollywood career had only started five years before this film.

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” began in 1848 Baton Rouge with the arrival of a discharged Army militia officer named Captain Vance Colby, who had fought in Texas and Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In response to a message from a close family friend, Vance planned to travel down to New Orleans on horseback to meet his father, a famous and successful professional gambler named Chip Colby. During his journey, he meets a beautiful Creole aristocrat named Ivette Rivage and comes to her aid, when her carriage’s horse becomes lame. She invites him to her family’s plantation, Araby, where he meets her brother Andre Rivage and her fiance Claude St. Germaine. The two men react coldly upon learning of Vance’s relation to his father, who has recently been accused of being a card cheat.

Following Vance’s departure from Araby, he is attacked by Andre’s hired thug, Etienne. Riverboat captain Antoine Barbee and his daughter Melanie, whom Vance had first met in Baton Rouge, come to the wounded Vance’s aid. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Vance learns that his father was killed and framed for card cheating by three men – casino owner Nicholas Cadiz, Claude St. Germaine and Andre Rivage. Colby Sr. had won half interest in a new gambling vessel that the three accusers had plans to launch. Upon learning this Vance vows revenge against his father’s enemies.

I first saw “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” on late night television when I was a teenager. Which means that MANY years had passed since my recent viewings. I wondered if my opinion of the film would change. To my surprise, I discover that it had not. As I had earlier stated, “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” struck me as a “B” swashbuckler. Although the film was released through Twentieth Century Fox, it was made by a production company called Panoramic Pictures that released a series of low budget films during the 1950s. And yes . . . it was quite obvious that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” was a low budget film.

I noticed that for a movie set in the lower Mississippi River Valley, I cannot recall seeing any hint or sign of water in it, aside from the swamp (or a back lot pond) where Vance Colby was wounded and the body of water (or back lot pond) where one of the villains fell from a riverboat. I am still amazed that Chester Bayhi’s set decorations and art director Leland Fuller managed to convey the movie’s late 1840s setting with some plausibility – especially in scenes featuring the interior sets for the Araby plantation, Nicholas Cadiz’s New Orleans casino and the parlor of Andre Rivage’s new steamboat.

On the other hand, I had a problem with Travilla’s costumes. His costumes for the movie’s actors, especially leading man Dale Robertson. Travilla did an excellent job in recapturing the men’s fashion for that era, including the U.S. Army officer uniform that Robertson wore during the film’s first half hour. I wish I could say the same for the women’s costumes in the movie. Well, I found most of them a somewhat adequate representation of women’s fashion in the late 1840s – especially those costumes worn by actress Lisa Daniels. But Travilla’s designs for leading lady Debra Paget’s costumes . . . what on earth?

Paget wore at least two or three more costumes in the film that struck me as a bit more tolerable. But she wore the one featured in the image above more than the others Now, I realize that her character, Melanie Barbee, was the daughter of a man who owned and operated a minor steamboat. But this is the 1840s we are talking about. Melanie was definitely not a prostitute or daughter of a poor backwoodsman. Her father owned a steamboat, even if it was second-class. A woman of her background and time would never be caught dead wearing such an outfit out in the open for everyone to see, let alone in the lobby of an exclusive New Orleans hotel.

I might have some issues with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. But if I must be honest, my opinion of the film has not changed over the years. I still managed to enjoy it. During my review of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”, I had complained about the film’s vague and episodic narrative. I certainly had no such problems with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. I thought Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace had created a solid and entertaining story about a mid-19th century gambler who sought revenge against the men who had killed his father and ruined the latter’s reputation. In fact, I cannot help but feel somewhat impressed by how Adams and Wallace had structured the movie’s plot.

The two screenwriters set up the plot by allowing the protagonist, Vance Colby, to encounter a series of mysteries surrounding his father. From the fight he participated in with another gambler during his arrival at Baton Rouge via steamboat to the discovery of Chip Colby’s death, Vance seemed encounter one mystery after another. Midway into the film, Adams and Wallace allowed Vance to finally discover the true mysteries behind Colby Senior’s recent reputation as a card cheat, Andre Rivage’s murder attempt on his life and Colby Senior’s death. Upon this point, the plot for “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” focused solely on Vance’s desire for revenge against the three men responsible for his father’s death. Through it all, Adams and Wallace created a light love triangle between Vance and two women – the steamboat captain’s daughter, Melanie Barbee; and Ivette Rivage, who proved to be more superior than her morally bankrupt brother.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast. By 1954, Dale Robertson had been around Hollywood for five years. Although he never became a big star like Tyrone Power, his excellent performance as the strong-willed and determined Vince Colby made it pretty obvious why his acting career lasted for the next four decades – mainly in television. He also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Debra Paget. She gave a very entertaining and superb performance as the feisty Melanie Barbee, who quickly fell in love with Vance while saving his skin on at least two or three occasions. Robertson also had a strong screen chemistry with Lisa Daniels, the British actress who portrayed the Creole aristocrat, Ivette Rivage. I believe Ivette proved to be a more complex character than any other in this film. She had to be regarded as the wrong woman for Vance, yet portrayed in a more sympathetic light than her brother. And I believe Daniels managed to skillfully achieve this balance in her performance.

I find it odd that Kevin McCarthy ended up in a low-budget film some three years after appearing in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, “DEATH OF A SALESMAN”. Well . . . regardless of how he must have felt at the time, McCarthy proved to be the first-rate actor and consummate professional who portrayed Andre Rivage as the charming, yet violent aristocrat whose temper and gambling addiction set the story in motion. Another excellent supporting performance came from Thomas Gomez, who portrayed Vance’s new friend and Melanie’s father, steamboat Captain Antoine Barbee. Gomez did an excellent job in conveying Captain Barbee’s friendly and pragmatic personality . . . and providing a brief father figure for Vance. The movie also featured solid performances from Douglas Dick (who portrayed the spineless Claude St. Germaine), John Wengraf (who portrayed the intimidating Nicholas Cadiz), Jay Novello, Peter Mamakos, Donald Randolph, and Henri Letondal. And guess who else was in this film? Woody Strode, who portrayed Josh, one of Captain Barbee’s crewmen. Or only crewman. Hell, I am not even certain whether he portrayed a free man or a slave. But his character did help the main hero defeat the “Big Bad” in a way that will prove to be very surprising for a film made in the 1950s.

I realize that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” is not perfect. But for a low-budget film, it proved to possess a very well-structured and well-written narrative, thanks to screenwriters Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace. Although I regard the story to be the backbone of any film, director Henry Levin could have have ruined it with bad direction. But he did not. Instead, I believe Levin and a cast led by Dale Robertson did more than justice to the screenplay. Perhaps this is why after so many years, I still managed to enjoy this film.

“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

Between the late 1980s and the first few years of the 21st century, communications mogul Ted Turner had produced or oversaw a series of period dramas in the forms of movies and miniseries. Aside from two or three productions, most of them were aired as television movies on the cable network TNT, which is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System. One of those productions was the 1991 movie, “IRONCLADS”

Set during the first year of the U.S. Civil War, “IRONCLADS” is a fictional account of the creations of the first two American ironclads, C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the U.S.S. Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor, and their clash during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The movie began in April 1861 with the U.S. Navy personnel being forced to evacuate the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, following the state of Virginia’s secession from the United States. During the evacuation, Quartermaster’s Mate Leslie Harmon deliberately interfered with the militarily necessary demolition of the Navy Yard’s dry dock at Hampton Roads Naval Base in order to prevent collateral damage and civilian casualties in the city, as Confederates overran the base. While stationed in Norfolk, Leslie had made friends. Unfortunately, his actions were noticed and he found himself facing court-martial. It seemed the newly formed Confederate Navy used the undamaged naval yard to raise the sunken U.S.S. Merrimack and refit it into an ironclad ship.

Union officer Commodore Joseph Smith gave him the choice between facing court-martial or serving as a Union spy. Leslie was assigned to work with a Virginia belle from Norfolk named Betty Stuart, who had become an abolitionist and Unionist during her years at a boarding school in Baltimore. Betty had also recruited her mother’s maid named Opal and the latter’s husband, Cletus, as part of her spy ring. Using Leslie’s past actions during the Union evacuation as an excuse to label him a Confederate sympathizer, Betty introduced him to Norfolk society. This allowed the pair to spy upon the activities surrounding the development of the Confederate Navy’s new ironclad ship. At the same time, the Union Navy recruited John Ericsson to design their own ironclad ship.

Many years – and I do mean many of them – had passed since I last saw “IRONCLADS”. It is a miracle that I was able to watch it, considering that it has yet to be released on DVD. When I first saw “IRONCLADS” over twenty years ago, I had been impressed, despite it being a low-budget television movie that aired on a Basic cable station. But seeing it again after twenty-five years or so . . . I am still impressed. I honestly did not think this movie would hold up after a quarter of a century. Mind you, “IRONCLADS” had its flaws. I think this movie could have been longer . . . at least thirty (30) to forty-five (45) minutes longer. After all, it is about the first two ironclads in both U.S. and world history and I believe that Leslie and Betty’s activities as spies in Norfolk could have been expanded a bit.

But my one real problem with the movie is the romance between Betty Stuart and Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate Navy. It was bad enough that Lieutenant Jones, who was roughly 39 to 40 years old during the movie’s setting was portrayed by actor Alex Hyde-White, who must have been at least roughly 31 years old during the movie’s production. Worse, Betty Stuart was a fictional character. Lieutenant Jones . . . was not. The movie did an excellent job in portraying historical characters such as John Ericsson, Commodore Joseph Smith, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the C.S.S. Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and yes, President Abraham Lincoln. But the movie made a major misstep in creating a romance between the fictional Betty and the historical Lieutenant Jones. I hate it when writers do that. I still have bad memories of George MacDonald Fraser allowing a historical character to be the illegitimate son of his fictional character, Harry Flashman. And the real Catesby ap Jones was already a married man with children during that first year of the Civil War. For the likes of me, I could not understand why screenwriter Harold Gast could not allow Betty to have a romance with another fictional character, who happened to serve aboard the C.S.S. Virginia under Buchanan and Jones.

Despite the above problems, I can honestly say that I still managed to enjoy “IRONCLADS”. Thanks to Delmar Mann’s direction and Harold Gast’s screenplay, the movie proved to be a heady mixture of espionage, military conflict and history. Step-by-step, the movie took television viewers on a road mixed with fiction and fact to that famous sea battle that stunned the rest of the world. What I found even more interesting – and I am sure that many might find this a reason to criticize – is that in an odd way, the production provided well-rounded characters from both the North and the South.

The Betty Stuart character proved to be rather ambiguous. She was a product of the Virginia upper-class, who became an abolitionist and pro-Union . . . without informing her friends and family about her change of allegiance. And yet, her love for Lieutenant Jones led her to betray her allegiance and beliefs. Her situation proved to be so complicated that the only advice I can give is to watch the film, if you can find it. Another complicated character proved to be the Northern-born navy quartermaster-turned-spy, Leslie Harmon. He got into trouble in the first place, because he thought more of the Norfolk civilians than destroying that dry dock. And while one can admire him for his humanity, I found it interesting that he never really considered the slaves who served the upper-and-middle-class citizens of that city. Until he became a spy and witnessed a Confederate Naval intelligence officer named Lieutenant Gilford harshly ordered Cletus to provide another glass of champagne for him. Leslie eventually confessed that he had never paid attention to Norfolk’s slaves before the war.

As anyone can see, the topic of slavery managed to play a strong role in this production. After all, Betty’s embrace of the abolitionist movement led her to become a pro-Union spy against her fellow Virginians. And she had recruited two of her mother’s slaves as part of her slave ring. What I found interesting about this movie is that it presented two incidents in which Opal and Cletus had individually faced the price of being slaves. I have already mentioned Leslie witnessing Lieutenant Gilford’s harsh and racist attitude toward Cletus. But for me, I was really put off by Mrs. Stuart’s decision to limit Opal’s “visit” to her sister to once a year. It was the manner in which she made this order. I found it cool, subtle, indifferent and self-involved. Naturally, Opal serving Mrs. Stuart’s needs was more important than the latter having the opportunity to see a relative.

However, this story is about the Monitor and the Merrimack. As I had earlier stated, the movie did a pretty damn good job in leading up to the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads. But let us be honest . . . the actual battle proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance – from that first day when the Merrimack nearly made the Union blockade near Norfolk and Newport News obsolete; to the second in which the two ironclads faced each other. In fact, the battle took up the entire second half. Here, I think Mann, along with film editor Millie Moore, visual effects artist Doug Ferris and the special effects team led by Joel P. Blanchard did an exceptional job of re-creating the Battle of Hampton Roads.

However, the Battle of Hampton Roads sequence was not the only aspect of “IRONCLADS” that I enjoyed. Moore, Ferris and the visual and special effects teams did an admirable job in recreating Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia circa 1861-62. Their work was ably supported by Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs; the sound effects created by the sound editing team led by Burton Weinstein; the sound mixing team led by Kenneth B. Ross; Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs. By the way, the two sound teams both earned Emmy nominations for their work. I was surprised to discover that another Emmy nomination was given to Noel Taylor for his costume designs. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed looking at them, especially those costumes worn by Virginia Masden, as shown below:

I found Taylor’s costumes colorful and yes . . . beautiful to look at. But if I must be honest, his costumes seemed to have a touch of late 20th century glamour – namely those worn by the Virginian elite – that I found unrealistic.

Looking back at “IRONCLADS”, I can honestly say that there was not a performance that blew my mind. The television movie did not feature a performance I would consider worthy of an Emmy nomination. Solid performances came from the likes of E.G. Marshall, Kevin O’Rourke, Leon B. Stevens, Carl Jackson, Andy Park, Burt Edwards and Marty Terry. I thought James Getty was pretty serviceable as President Abraham Lincoln. However, I think he managed to really evoke the memory of “Old Abe” with one particular line – “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. It (the U.S.S. Monitor) strikes me there’s something in it.”

But there were performances that I found very noticeable and effective. One would think that Philip Casnoff’s portrayal of naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Guilford, to be a remake of the villainous character he had portrayed in the television adaptations of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels. However, Casnoff’s Guilford was no copycat of Elkhannah Bent. The actor effectively portrayed a cool and ruthless spymaster willing to do what it took to protect his new nation. Joanne Dorian gave a very interesting and varied performance as Betty Stuart’s shallow and self-involved mother, Blossom Stuart. At times, I found her portrayal of Mrs. Stuart hilarious or amusing. And yet . . . there was that scene in which the actress conveyed the ugliness of her character’s selfishness and racism.

Another performance that caught my eye came from Beatrice Bush, who portrayed Mrs. Stuart’s enslaved maid, Opal and Betty’s fellow spy. During the teleplay’s first half, Bush gave a solid performance. But I was truly impressed by how the actress had expressed Opal’s shock and suppressed anger over Betty’s decision to inform Catesby about their findings regarding the C.S.S. Virginia’s plating. I wsa impressed by how Bush effortlessly expressed Opal’s anger without allowing the character to lose control. I also enjoyed Fritz Weaver’s portrayal of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born immigrant, who became one of the best naval engineers of the 19th century and designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Weaver gave a very entertaining performance as the tart-tongued engineer who was constantly irritated by U.S. Navy and the Lincoln Administration’s doubts over his work or the use of iron clad ships.

Alex Hyde-White gave a charismatic portrayal of Confederate Naval officer, Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. The actor did a good job in conveying his character charm, professionalism. He also effectively conveyed Jones’ anger and confusion upon discovering his love’s role as a Union spy. I really enjoyed Reed Diamond’s engaging portrayal of the earnest Union Navy quartermaster, Leslie Harmon. I enjoyed how his character had learned a lesson about himself and what this war was about. He also gave, what I believe to be one of the best lines in the movies. Both Hyde-White and Reed managed to create solid chemistry with leading actress, Virginia Madsen.

Speaking of Madsen, and managed to create a solid screen chemistry with lead Virginia Madsen. Superficially, Madsen’s Betty Stuart seemed like the typical lead in a period drama – a beautiful and noble woman of high birth who has become dedicated to a cause. What made Betty interesting is that she was a Southern-born woman from a slave-owning family who became a dedicated abolitionist. And this led her to become an effective and yes, manipulative spy. But what I found interesting about Madsen’s skillful portrayal is that her character proved to be surprisingly a bit complicated . . . especially when her role as a spy and her feelings for Catsby Jones produced a conflict within her.

I am not going to push the idea that TNT’s “IRONCLADS” was a television hallmark or masterpiece. It was a solid 94-minute account of the circumstances that led to the creations of the world’s first two ironclads – the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor – and their historic clash in Virginia waters. A part of me wished that this movie – especially the details leading to the Battle of Hampton Roads – had been a bit longer. And I am not that thrilled over screenwriter Harold Gast using a historical figure like Catesby ap Jones as the love interest of the fictional Betty Stuart. But I believe that both Gast and director Delmar Mann had created an interesting, complex and exciting narrative that was enhanced by excellent performances from a cast led by Virginia Madsen.

Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

I have never seen “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, the 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, in the theaters. And yet . . . my knowledge of this film led me to view two previous adaptations. And finally, I found the chance to view this adaptation, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story of a young 19th century rural English woman named Bathsheba Everdeene and the three men in her life – a sheep farmer-turned-shepherd named Gabriel Oak; her neighbor and owner of the neighborhood’s largest farm, William Boldwood; and an illegitimate Army sergeant named Frank Troy. Bathsheba first met Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who had leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel proposed marriage, but Bathsheba rejected his proposal even though she liked him. She valued her independence more. Later, Bathsheba inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm, while Gabriel’s fortune disappeared when his inexperienced sheep dog drove his flock over a cliff. When the pair’s paths crossed again, Bathsheba ended up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd. Meanwhile, Bathsheba became acquainted with her new neighbor, a wealthy farmer named William Boldwood. He became romantically obsessed with her after she sent him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. But before she could consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy entered her life and she immediately fell in love and married him. Eventually, Bathsheba came to realize that Frank was the wrong man for her.

A good number of people compared this adaptation of Hardy’s novel to the 1967 movie adapted by John Schlesinger. Personally, I did not. As much as I enjoyed the 1967 movie, I have never regarded it as the gold-standard for any movie or television adaptation of the 1874 novel. But like the other two version, Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation had its flaws. Looking back on “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, I can honestly say that I had at least a few problems with it.

I wish the running time for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” had been a bit longer than 119 minutes. I believe a longer running time would have given the film’s narrative more time to explore the downfall of Bathsheba and Frank’s marriage. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls had rushed through this entire story arc. I was surprised when Bathesheba admitted to Gabriel that her marriage to Frank had been a mistake on the very night of hers and Frank’s harvest/wedding party, when an upcoming storm threatened to ruin her ricks. I realize that this conversation also occurred during the night of the harvest/wedding party in the novel. But from a narrative point-of-view, I believe this conversation between Bathsheba and Gabriel would have worked later in the story . . . when it has become very obvious that her marriage to Frank has failed.

In fact, Frank Troy’s entire character arc seemed to be rushed in this film. Many have complained that Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank was flawed. I do not agree. I did not have a problem with the actor’s performance. I had a problem with Vinterberg and Nicholls’ portrayal of Frank. In my review of the 1967 adaptation, I had complained about the overexposure of Frank’s character in that film. In this version of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, Frank’s character seemed to be underexposed. Aside from a few scenes that included Bathsheba and Frank’s first meeting, his display of swordsmanship, his revelation about his true feelings for Bathsheba and Boldwood’s Christmas party; I do not think that this movie explored Frank’s character as much as it could have.

Another aspect of Frank Troy’s arc that suffered in this film was the character of Fanny Robin. Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel should know that Fanny was a local girl who worked at the Everdene farm. Before Gabriel’s arrival, she had left to become Frank’s wife. Unfortunately, the wedding never happened because Fanny went to the wrong church. Frustrated angry, Frank prematurely ended their relationship. If Frank was underexposed in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, poor Fanny was barely developed. I could solely blame Thomas Hardy for this poor use of Fanny’s character, since he was also guilty of the character’s underdevelopment. But I have to blame Vinterberg and Nicholls as well. They could have easily added a bit more to Fanny’s character, which is what the 1998 miniseries adaptation did. Alas . . . audiences barely got to know poor Fanny Robin.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may not have been perfect, but I still found it to be a first-rate film. One, it is a beautiful movie to watch. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have lacked the sweeping cinematography featured in the 1967 movie, but I must admit that I enjoyed Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s elegant, yet colorful photography. I can also say the same about the Art Design team of Julia Castle, Tim Blake and Hannah Moseley; and Kave Quinn’s production designs, which did a stupendous job of re-creating a part of rural England in the late 19th century. But I really enjoyed Janet Patterson’s costume designs, as shown in the images below:

 

Although the novel was published in 1874, Patterson’s costumes made it apparent to me that Vinterberg had decided to set this adaptation during the late 1870s or early 1880s. Did this bother me? No. I was too distracted by Patterson’s elegant, yet simple costumes to care.

Yes, I had a problem with the film’s limited portrayal of Frank Troy and especially Fanny Robin. But I still enjoyed this adaptation very much. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that Vinterberg and Nicholls did an excellent job of staying true to the narrative’s main theme – namely the character development of Bathsheba Everdene. From that first moment when Gabriel Oak spotted the spirited Bathsheba riding bareback on her horse, to her early months as moderately wealthy farmer, to the infatuated bride of an unsuitable man, to the emotionally battered but not bowed woman who learned to appreciate and love the right man in her life; “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” allowed filmgoers share Bathsheba’s emotional journey during an important period in her life.

The ironic thing is that Bathsheba’s story arc is not the only one featured in this film. Both Vinterberg and Nicholls also explored Gabriel Oak’s personal journey, as well. Superficially, Gabriel seemed to be the same man throughout the film. And yet, I noticed that Gabriel seemed a bit too sure of himself in the film’s opening sequence. He seemed sure of his possible success with a sheep farm and his efforts to woo Bathsheba. And yet, between the loss of his herd and Bathsheba’s rejection, Gabriel found himself forced to start all over again with his life. Although he remained constant in his love for Bathsheba and his moral compass, it was interesting to watch him struggle with his personal frustrations and setbacks – especially in regard to his feelings for Bathsheba.

Whereas audiences watch Bathsheba and Gabriel develop, they watch both John Boldwood and Francis Troy regress to their tragic fates. The strange thing about Frank was that he had a chance for a happier life with Fanny Robin. I still remember that wonderful sequence in which Frank waited for Fanny to appear at the church for their wedding. It was interesting to watch his emotions change from mild fear, hope and joy to outright anger and contempt toward Fanny for leaving him at the altar, all because she went to the wrong church. I still find it interesting that Frank allowed his pride and anger to get the best of him and reject the only woman that he truly loved. Boldwood . . . wow! Every time I watch an adaptation of Hardy’s story, I cannot help but feel a mixture of pity, annoyance and some contempt. He truly was a pathetic man in the end. Perhaps he was always that pathetic . . . even from the beginning when he seemed imperious to Bathsheba’s presence. After all, it only took a Valentine’s card – given to him as some kind of joke – to send him on a path of obsessive love and murder.

The performances in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” certainly added to the film’s excellent quality. The movie featured some pretty first-rate performances from the supporting cast. This was apparent in Juno Temple’s charming and poignant portrayal of the doomed Fanny Robin. I was also impressed by Jessica Barden for giving a very lively performance as Liddy, Bathsheba’s extroverted boon companion. The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Phillips, who portrayed Frank’s friend, Sergeant Doggett; Victor McGuire as the corrupt Bailiff Pennyways; and Tilly Vosburgh, who portrayed Bathsheba’s aunt, Mrs. Hurst.

As I had earlier pointed out, many have criticized Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy. I do not disagree with this criticism. If I must be honest, I was very impressed with Sturridge’s performance. I thought he conveyed the very aspect of Frank’s nature – both the good and the bad. This was especially apparent in three scenes – Frank’s aborted wedding to Fanny, his initial seduction of Bathsheba, and his emotional revelation of his true feelings for Fanny. It really is a pity that Vinterberg did not give Sturridge more screen time to shine. Thankfully, Michael Sheen was given plenty of screen time for his portrayal of Bathsheba’s possessive neighbor, John Boldwood. I must confess . . . I have never seen Sheen portray any other character like Boldwood. It was a revelation watching the actor beautifully embody this emotionally stunted man, who allowed a silly Valentine’s Day joke to lead him to desperately grasped at at prospect for love.

I had never heard of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts until I saw this film. This is understandable, considering that “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was the first English-speaking movie in which I had seen him. Vinterberg must have been a major fan of Schoenaerts to be willing to cast him as the obviously 19th century English shepherd, Gabriel Oak. I am certainly a fan of his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel. Schoenaerts did a superb job in conveying Gabriel’s emotional journey – especially in regard to the ups and downs in the character’s relationship with Bathsheba. I am still amazed by how the actor managed to convey Gabriel’s emotional state, while maintaining the character’s reserve nature.

I believe Carey Mulligan may have been at least 28 or 29 years old, when shooting “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, making her the second oldest actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Some have complained that Mulligan seemed a bit too old to be portraying the early 20s Bathsheba.  I can honestly say that I do not agree. During the film’s first 20 minutes or so, Mulligan’s Bathsheba did come off as a bit sophisticated and all knowing. It eventually occurred to me that the actress was merely conveying the character’s youthful arrogance. And yet, Mulligan skillfully  conveyed the character’s personal chinks in that arrogance throughout the movie – whether expressing Bathsheba’s insistence that Gabriel regard her solely as an employer, the character’s embarrassment over being pursued by the obsessive Boldwood or Frank’s overt sexual attention to her, or her desperation and humiliation from his emotional abuse. Mulligan gave an excellent and memorable performance.

I cannot say that the 2015 movie, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is perfect. Come to think of it, none of the adaptations I have seen are. Despite its flaws, I can honestly say that it is another excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, thanks to Thomas Vinterberg’s direction, David Nicholls’ screenplay and a superb cast led by Carey Mulligan.

 

 

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

There have been countless number of plays, movie and television productions based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” novels and short stories. Some of these productions have touched upon or portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict. Only two have actually explored this topic. And one of them was the 1976 film, “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”

Film director and novelist Nicholas Meyer had written his first novel – a Sherlock Holmes tale – called “The Seven-Percent Solution” – and it was published in 1974. A year or two later, Meyer adapted the novel as a movie. Directed by Herbert Ross, the film starred Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. John Watson and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud. “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” began when Army veteran Dr. John Watson becomes convinced that his close friend and colleague, private detective Sherlock Holmes, has developed a drug-induced obsession with proving that a professor named James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind. After Moriarty complains to Watson that he is being harassed by Holmes, the good doctor enlists the aid of Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, to trick Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where he can be treated by a clinical neurologist named Dr. Sigmund Freud. While being treated by Freud for his cocaine addiction, Holmes becomes involved with a kidnapping case involving an actress, who happens to be another patient of Dr. Freud’s.

It is quite obvious that “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” is a mystery . . . like any other Sherlock Holmes tale. Only, Holmes is not the person who solves the film’s major mystery. It is Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Wait a minute . . . “ many of you might say. Holmes is the main character in this tale. And the film’s narrative includes the famous detective being forced to solve a kidnapping. But the kidnapping of Lola Devereaux seemed to be the movie’s B-plot. The real mystery seemed to be the reasons behind Holmes’ addiction . . . and his harassment of Professor Moriarty. And that mystery remained unsolved – by Dr. Freud – until the film’s final ten to fifteen minutes. Sherlock Holmes might be the film’s main character, but the main investigator in this tale is none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud. This is one of the reasons why I still find “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” so fascinating. For once, Sherlock Holmes is not the main investigator in one of his tales . . . he is the mystery. No wonder this film is so rare among the many works of fiction – on screen or off – about the famous detective. Not only did I find it rare, but also very interesting.

Since the real mystery behind “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was about Sherlock Holmes’ personal demons and his drug use, I also have to give kudos to Nicholas Meyer in the manner in which he structured the narrative. He must have realized that he could not simply present a story about Holmes’ demons and his drug addiction and keep movie audiences interested. Especially since Holmes is the main character. Meyer had to include an adventure for the fictional detective, Dr. Watson and Dr. Freud. And I believe that Meyer was very smart to first center the story around Holmes’ addiction and his harassment of James Moriarty. Yet, at the same time, Meyer injected small clues that foreshadowed the trio’s adventures surrounding Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. By the time Freud managed to “dry out” Holmes’ drug addiction, the story finally shifted full time to the kidnapping. I also thought Meyer was very clever to portray her as another one of Freud’s patients, in order to include the neurologist into the adventure. And yet, the rescue of Miss Devereaux was not the end of the story, for the real mystery had yet to be solved – namely what traumatic event led Holmes to his drug use and his harassment of Moriarty. Like I said . . . very clever. Meyer’s story was basically a character study of Sherlock Holmes, yet he included an exciting adventure into the narrative in order to maintain the audience’s interest.

Another aspect of “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” that I truly enjoyed was its production values. It is a very beautiful looking film. I believe the three people responsible for the movie’s visual style were cinematographer Oswald Morris, costume designer Alan Barrett and two veterans of the James Bond franchise – art director Peter Lamont and the legendary production designer Ken Adams. One of the aspects that I enjoyed about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was Morris’ beautiful and colorful photography of England and Austria, especially Vienna. I have only one complaint about Morris’ photography was the hazy sheen that seemed to indicate that the film is a period drama. I found that unnecessary. I was very impressed with Barrett’s costumes – for both the men and women characters. I thought he did an excellent job in creating exquisite costumes for a story set in the early 1890s. As much as I admire most of Morris’ photography for its sheer visual beauty, I also admire it for enhancing both Ken Adams’ production designs and Peter Lamont’s art designs. And I have to say . . . both did a great job in re-creating both late Victorian England and Vienna during the middle period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The performances featured in “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” were pretty solid, with perhaps a few outstanding ones. Would I regard Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes outstanding? I am not sure. I have to admit that I was impressed by his performance in many scenes – especially those that featured Holmes’ investigation of Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. However, there were a good number of moments when I found Williamson’s performance a bit theatrical – especially in those scenes when Holmes’ obsession of Moriarty seemed to be overwhelming or when the character was in the throes of cocaine withdrawal. Many filmgoers and critics have claimed that Robert Duvall was miscast as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ closest friend and chronicler. Perhaps. I suspect that this belief is solely based upon the British accent that Duvall had utilized for the role. It was not impressive. In fact, I found it lumbering and somewhat wince-inducing. However . . . a bad accent does not exactly mean a bad performance. Despite his inability to get a handle on a decent British accent, I cannot deny that Duvall gave a classy and first-rate performance as the loyal and intelligent Watson.

Vanessa Redgrave gave an exquisite performance as Lola Devereaux, the sensuous, yet intelligent actress, who becomes the target of kidnappers. Jeremy Kemp was marvelous as the arrogant and bigoted Baron Karl von Leinsdorf, who also could be rather dashing . . . at least to women like Miss Deveareaux. Joel Grey gave an interesting performance as a mysterious figure named Lowenstein, who played a prominent role in Miss Devereaux’s kidnapping. The movie also benefited from solid performances from Samantha Eggar, Charles Gray, Anna Quayle, Georgia Brown, Régine and John Hill. Jill Townsend, who was married to Williamson at the time, made a very effective cameo as the Holmes brothers’ mother in a flashback.

But for me, the two best performances came from Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Laurence Olivier as Professor James Moriarty. Arkin was superb as the brilliant neurologist, whose cool demeanor is constantly tested by Holmes’ abrasive personality, Baron von Leinsdorf’s bigotry and the adventure that he, Holmes and Watson are drawn into. I believe the other great performance came from Laurence Olivier, who gave a fascinating performance as the target of Holmes’ ire, Professor James Moriarty. What I found fascinating about Olivier’s performance is that he managed to not only convey Moriarty’s obsequious behavior, but also a hint that the character was hiding a pretty awful secret.

I realized that I only had a few quibbles about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”. I did not care for the hazy sheen that layered an otherwise excellent photography by Oswald Morris. There were times when lead actor Nicol Williamson seemed a bit hammy and if I must be honest, Robert Duvall’s English accent was rather ponderous and fake. But overall, both actors and the rest of the cast provided some pretty good performances, especially Alan Arkin and Laurence Olivier. But I was especially impressed by the narrative for “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”, a unique Sherlock Holmes tale in which the main mystery was focused on the detective’s own psyche.

“THE CROWN” and Prince Philip

“THE CROWN” AND PRINCE PHILIP

Do not get me wrong. I really enjoyed “THE CROWN”. And I also enjoyed Matt Smith’s performance as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. I thought he did a great job in capturing both the positive and negative aspects of the prince’s character. But I do have a few complaints about the series’ portrayal of the prince consort. 

For me, one of the more frustrating aspects of “THE CROWN” was its portrayal of Prince Philip. I am beginning to that think show runner Peter Morgan never truly understood him. Everyone talked about how Philip should have stopped complaining about his boredom and support the Queen. He has always supported her, whether he was complaining or not. Even when he criticized her, he supported her. But Philip had a very good reason to complain. The Palace courtiers and the Queen Mother, who never wanted him to marry Elizabeth in the first place, did not want him to have any influence upon the Court. I think their idea of Philip as consort was for him to sit on his ass most of the day, doing nothing – aside from acting as royal stud or escort to major events and state visits. That’s it. From what I have read about Philip, those first four to five years of the Queen’s reign were very frustrating for him.

It was not until after his 1956-57 world tour and visit to the Melbourne Olympic Games that he started establishing his own style and role as consort. Morgan seemed to hint that the Queen creating Philip as a prince of Great Britain and Northern Ireland solved his problems with the royal courtiers and his role as consort. That is far from the truth. In the end, Philip established the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Commonwealth Study Conferences during the period covered by Season Two. He also joined the Queen’s Privy Council for both Britain and Canada. He served as president of the National Playing Fields Association and The World Wildlife Fund. He also served as Chancellor of the Universities of Edinburgh and Wales, while at the same time began engaging in more State Visits by himself, on behalf of the Crown. But for some reason, the series never really established or hinted this. Season One had established his earlier frustration at being prince consort, but failed to follow through in the second season, especially when history offered Morgan the chance to do so.

Instead, “THE CROWN” mainly focus upon its speculation on whether Philip had cheated on the Queen or not. What made this even more annoying was that Morgan established the idea of Philip having an affair with a Soviet Union ballerina named Aliya Tanykpayeva (aka Galina Ulanova), who was eleven (11) years his senior. The idea is just ludicrous to me. I doubt very much that they hung around the same social circles. And chances are Tanykpayeva (Ulanova), as a Soviet citizen, would have been monitored by MI-5 during her tour of Britain. As for Philip’s connection to the Promfumo Affair … like Princess Margaret and several other members of the Royal Family, he was a patient of Dr. Stephen Ward. There has been no real evidence or anything of women being procured for him by Ward. And yet, Morgan seemed to be stuck in this obsession over whether Philip had committed adultery or not, his “toxic masculinity” … and nothing else.

I forgot the name of the blog, but its owner once hinted that Peter Morgan might have some hang-up or hostility toward Prince Philip. Personally, I rather doubt it. Either this was a case of Morgan using the rumors of infidelity as a source of more drama. Or perhaps my earlier speculation might be correct . . . that the show runner simply did not understand the prince or the consequences of his role as the sovereign’s consort.